Anyone interested in tracing the development of Richard Wilbur’s art in the Pulitzer prize-winning New and Collected Poems must read the book backward, so to speak, for he has arranged it in reverse chronological order. To do so, however, is to discover that his poetry has changed less than has that of most poets with a practice extending over four decades. From The Beautiful Changes and Other Poems (1947) onward, his work has radiated the self-assurance of a man who knows what he is doing and does not doubt its value. His present disinclination to revise or excise any of the earlier poems tends to confirm his confidence in a body of work that has sprung, Minerva-like, from his forehead.
At the same time Wilbur remains a quiet and unpretentious poet whose work usually repays the close attention it requires. In whatever order they are approached, they confirm his reputation for wit, irony, formal elegance, a virtually faultless ear, and precision of both observation and expression. Poetic movements have risen and subsided since World War II in response to the perils and perplexities of the times and to the periodic need to recreate poetry, but they have not seduced Wilbur’s muse. Skimming through the table of contents, one notes how seldom his titles signal the topical; when they seem to, it is usually a false alarm. In the 1950’s, for example, he wrote “Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act,” but a glance at it reveals it as nothing political but rather a witty exercise recommending nets “of the spirit’s weaving” instead of those devised to catch spies. For Wesleyan College students protesting American military activity in Southeast Asia in 1970 he composed “For the Student Strikers,” but the poem “did not flatter the students in the manner to which they were accustomed,” as he reported in an endnote, and they discarded it (later rescuing it from the wastebasket, however, and publishing it in their organ, Strike News). Even more for Wilbur than for W. H. Auden, poetry “makes nothing happen” in the sense of influencing specific events. Wilbur prefers to set the event into some larger and less timebound context, attempt a bit of wisdom to buoy activists through their crises, or—most often—avoid the topical entirely. The war intrudes very little in his 1947 volume; Walking to Sleep (1969) reflects little of the turmoil of its decade, although Wilbur was by no means asleep. It is hardly surprising that he was not a particularly fashionable poet in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s, when campus readings by Allen Ginsberg and Robert Bly could be counted on to fill the hall. Wilbur prefers to take the long view of events and movements that provoke headlines. When he writes of “things of this world,” they turn out to be things like the laundry on a clothesline. Such ordinary and recurring things, whether the elements of nature’s cycle or the round of human activities, have characteristically energized his imagination and generated his best poems.
Measured by a literary-historical yardstick, Wilbur does not look important. In the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988) he is given only the briefest mention, and that condescending, but his poems have already outlived some of the more prominent effusions of the poetic movers and shakers of recent decades. He continues to be a frequently anthologized poet, and a surprisingly long list of various editors’ selections of his poems can be made. Seldom is he unrepresented in anthologies designed to introduce students to the elements of literature. It will be surprising if the title poem from his 1976 book The Mind-Reader does not become an anthology piece. Reminiscent of the confidential monologues of Robert Browning, it has a length—nearly 150 lines—that is unusual for Wilbur, but the character is so fully realized, the brilliant metaphors emanate so smoothly as if from the lips of the confidence man, and the blank verse proceeds so flexibly that it must be regarded as one of the most successful examples of the genre in the twentieth century.
Wilbur has insisted that he has no program, that each poem is a new creation unrelated to his others, but he has discovered relationships in his finished work. Three which he chose to discuss in a 1966 essay, “On My Own Work,” deal “with the proper relation between the tangible world and the intuitions of the spirit,” and certainly this theme is implicit in many of his other poems. The well-known poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” then, does not merely describe the laundry on the line but also expresses those “intuitions of the spirit” which in Wilbur’s mind rise legitimately from a waking person’s contemplation of bed sheets and blouses flapping in the wind. Such intuitions presumably can emerge from wars and strikes and other public events also, but in Wilbur’s case they seldom do. He recognizes what many poets have had to learn ruefully: Public occurrences in the modern world tend to be on a scale intimidating to the imagination and to exist in a wash of banal commentary. Wilbur prefers events that he can make his own—ones smaller and less cluttered by popular journalism and relentless commerce.
Many twentieth century poets have shunned traditional forms; others, such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, have swung back and forth between freer and more rigorously patterned verse, but Wilbur has followed Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson in keeping to established forms and working subtle...
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